The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), led by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), provides evidence on how the achievement and abilities of 15-year-olds varies across countries. PISA is conducted every three years, and pupils are tested in four subjects (science, mathematics, reading and collaborative problem solving), with one subject the particular focus each time. Together these data enable us to benchmark ourselves against the rest of the world, and to spot particular strengths and weaknesses in our education system.
PISA is conducted every three years and is centred around a direct assessment of pupils’ science, mathematics and reading abilities. Each year one of these subjects is covered in more detail – science in 2015 – and pupils are also assessed in an innovative domain – collaborative problem solving1 in 2015. In 2015 PISA was administered in the majority of countries as a computer-based assessment (CBA) for the first time.
Over 70 countries participated in PISA 2015, including all members of the OECD and all four countries within the United Kingdom. In England, PISA 2015 was conducted in November to December 2015, with a sample of 5,194 pupils in England from across 206 schools. The vast majority of England’s participating pupils were born between September 1999 and August 2000, meaning they came to the end of primary school during 2010, and were the last cohort to take the GCSE examinations before they are reformed.
The average science, mathematics and reading scores of pupils in England have not changed since 2006. Our 15-year-olds continue to perform significantly above the OECD average in science whilst they remain at the OECD average for mathematics. For the first time in 2015, pupils in England perform significantly, but only just, above the OECD average in reading.
Although there has been no significant change in England’s absolute score, our performance relative to other countries has changed since 2012 as they improve or decline around us. The OECD average has fallen (but only significantly in science) meaning that England’s reading performance is now above average despite having not changed since 2012, and our relative science position has increased compared to 2012 as other countries’ average scores have dropped. Whilst performance in England has not changed there have been changes in other parts of the United Kingdom, notably declines in average science performance in Scotland and Wales.
Achievement in science
The average science score in England has remained consistent since 2006 and is higher than the average score of 15-year-olds in 52 countries. There are just nine countries where the mean science score is at least 10 points (four months of schooling) ahead of England, including Singapore, Japan, Estonia and Taiwan – the top science performers in 2015.
Although England’s average science score has not changed since 2006, other countries have moved around us. For example, Australia and New Zealand have undergone a sustained fall in their scores since 2006 and are now at a similar level to England, having been previously ahead. The average science score has also fallen in Finland, though it remains a high-performing country. Portugal and Macao, meanwhile, are two of the few countries where there has been a statistically significant and sustained improvement in science achievement since 2006.
The comparatively high science performance of England’s high-achievers is a notable strength of the English educational system; this country has some of the best young scientists anywhere in the world. There are only three countries (Singapore, Taiwan and Japan) where the top 10 per cent of pupils are more than one school term (four months of schooling) ahead of their peers in England. However, the gap between the highest and lowest achieving pupils in science is also bigger in England than in many other OECD countries.
Achievement in mathematics
The average mathematics score for England has remained stable since 2006. There are 18 countries where the mean score is at least a third of a year of schooling ahead of England, and 36 countries where the mean mathematics score is at least a third of a year of schooling below. The top seven ranked jurisdictions in PISA mathematics are all within East Asia. It is of note that while China are among the top seven performers; mathematics is the only subject in which China significantly outperforms England in 2015.
Although England’s average mathematics score has remained stable, a number of countries have caught England up over the last decade, including Italy, Portugal and Russia. On the other hand, the Czech Republic, Australia, New Zealand and Iceland all had higher average mathematics scores than England in 2006, but their mean mathematics score is now similar to ours. In tandem with their declining science performance, Finland, New Zealand, Australia and the Netherlands experienced substantial declines in average mathematics scores since 2006.
England’s top achievers in mathematics do not stand out in the same way as our top scientists. England has a similar proportion of high-achieving pupils as the average across members of the OECD, and our top maths performers are similarly placed internationally as we are in terms of our average performance.
Meanwhile, the relatively poor mathematics skills of England’s low-achieving pupils stands out as a weakness of England’s education system. England’s lowest achievers have mathematics skills that are significantly below the mathematics skills of the lowest achievers in several other countries. It is also notable how the bottom 10 per cent of mathematics performers in England trail those in Northern Ireland and Scotland, despite both countries having very similar average mathematics scores to England. Indeed, England has a particularly unequal distribution of 15-year-olds’ mathematics achievement. The gap between the highest and lowest achieving pupils in mathematics in England is above the OECD average and is equivalent to over eight years of schooling.
Boys continue to out-perform girls in mathematics in England. The mathematics skills of boys in England is, on average, around a third of a year of schooling ahead of girls. This compares to the results for reading, in which girls do better, and science where girls and boys are equal.
Achievement in reading
As is the case with science and mathematics, there is no evidence of a significant change in average reading scores in England since 2006.
There are nine countries where the mean reading score is at least a third of a year of schooling ahead of England, with the top performing countries including Singapore, Hong Kong, Canada, Finland and Ireland. By contrast, there are 41 countries where the mean reading score is at least a third of a year of schooling lower than in England.
As with the other subjects, England’s stability is in contrast to other countries which have moved around us. Some of the higher-performing countries in 2006 have experienced a decline in their reading scores, including South Korea, Finland and New Zealand, though they nevertheless remain ahead of us. Countries catching us up in 2015 include Russia and Portugal (both of which have also caught up with us in mathematics), as well as Spain.
The performance of the top 10 percent of pupils in England is relatively strong in reading. Indeed, there are relatively few countries across the world where the highest-achieving pupils have substantially stronger reading skills than those in England, and only one (Singapore) where the top performers’ average score is more than 20 points above the top performers’ score for England.
The gap between the highest and lowest achieving pupils in reading in England is similar to the OECD average. However, this masks some important points. In only seven countries is the spread of results (in terms of the gap between the top and bottom 10 percent of performers) greater than in England. Only one of these – New Zealand – is a top-ten country (in terms of average reading scores), whilst six of the top-ten countries have significantly smaller differences between the best and worst readers compared to England.
Boys in England continue to perform less well than girls in reading by an average of around nine months of schooling. This is not an unusual finding; there is a similar gender gap in reading skills in many other OECD countries.
Variation in scores by pupil characteristics
There is a relatively large gap in England between high and low performers. The difference between the top and bottom 10 per cent of pupils in England is over eight years of schooling in both science and maths – a larger gap than in most OECD countries. A number of factors contribute to this gap.
Differences in pupil’s socio-economic background will explain some of the variation since more advantaged pupils perform better on average than their less advantaged peers. For example, in science, the gap between pupils from the most and least advantaged 25 per cent of families is almost three years of schooling. However, the size of this gap is very similar to the average across industrialised countries. Moreover, in some countries the strength of relationship between socio-economic status and achievement is much stronger than in England; e.g. China and Singapore. Yet in others, such as Hong Kong, the relationship is weaker.
Pupil performance in England also varies according to immigrant status. Pupils from immigrant backgrounds achieve lower scores than those who were born and raised in the UK. Again, England is not unusual in this respect. White pupils in England also obtain higher scores than their Black and Asian peers although White pupils from less advantaged backgrounds perform significantly lower than more advantaged White pupils.
Differences in achievement between schools
In England, there are bigger differences in achievement amongst 15-year-olds who attend the same school than there are differences in achievement between pupils who attend different schools. This is not unusual for a country with a comprehensive schooling system, with a similar finding occurring across a diverse set of countries within the OECD (e.g. Finland, South Korea, the United States). The same does not hold true in countries where academic selection into secondary schools is used, such as the Netherlands and Germany, where differences in achievement are just as big between schools as they are within schools.
Whilst differences across schools are not as large as in other countries, they do still exist. Pupils in outstanding Ofsted-rated schools perform better than their peers in schools rated as inadequate/requiring improvement. The difference in science is around two years of schooling (with similar gaps in mathematics and reading). Comparing performance across schools managed or governed in different ways, the top performing schools are independents. Their performance in science puts them level with 15-year-olds in the top-performing countries, such as Singapore. Independent school pupils are also around a year of schooling ahead of the next highest achieving group in England, converter academies, who are then around a year of schooling ahead of voluntary-aided and controlled schools. Performance is lowest in sponsored academies, where the average science score is 480 points – equal to the overall performance of countries like Italy, Hungary and Luxembourg.
When looking at school admissions policies, pupils who attend grammar schools are the top performing, with a difference of almost a year of schooling in both science and mathematics compared to their peers who attend an independent school. Yet when looking across countries, it is apparent that there is little association between the use of academic selection to assign pupils into different secondary schools and the proportion of disadvantaged pupils who manage to succeed academically against the odds. Some caution is required, however, when considering the differences in achievement between schools. In particular, as no control has been included for pupils’ prior achievement, these results cannot be interpreted as providing evidence of differential pupil progress or of school effectiveness.
School management and resources
Headteachers in England are more likely to report being proactive in the management of their schools than in other countries (including those with the highest average science scores). For example, a greater proportion of headteachers in England use pupil performance data in setting their school’s educational objectives than in any of the ten countries with the highest average science scores. Moreover, headteachers in England are more positive about the science resources that are available within their school than in the typical OECD or high performing country. Likewise, they are generally positive about the science equipment that their school has available. Headteachers in England are less likely to report that their staff are resistant to change.
Headteachers in England do also face a number of challenges. Almost half of secondary school pupils in England are taught in schools where the headteacher believes that staff shortages are hindering learning; this is 15 percentage points above the OECD average and the average across the 10 high-performing countries. Headteachers in England are also more likely to report problems with physical infrastructure than headteachers in other industrialised countries. Another key concern of headteachers in England is the level of absenteeism amongst their staff; a quarter of secondary pupils are taught in schools where the headteacher believes that this is hindering pupils’ learning.
There are also key challenges facing headteachers managing low performing schools (in terms of Ofsted inspections). For instance, whereas only 19 per cent of headteachers who lead an outstanding school agree that their staff do not meet individual pupils’ needs, this increases to 42 per cent in schools that require improvement, and up to 77 per cent for the inadequate group. Therefore, targeting the way teachers interact with pupils could be a way to improve lower performing schools.
Pupils’ experiences of their time in science classes at school, and their aspirations for the future
Secondary school pupils in England report having almost five hours of timetabled science lessons per week, which is more than the OECD average (3.5 hours) and the average across the high-performing countries (four hours). Pupils in England report around 16.5 hours per week of additional study (i.e. hours outside of pupils’ regular timetable). Only two of the 10 high-performing countries (Singapore and China) report higher additional study hours.
In science lessons, pupils report a variety of activities taking place, and in general, classrooms in England appear more interactive than in high performing countries. Despite this, pupils in England are only slightly more likely to conduct investigations to test an idea, and are less likely to argue about and debate science questions and investigations.
Science teachers in England provide more regular feedback to pupils on their strengths and weakness, including specific areas they can improve, than teachers in many of the countries with the highest average scores. Within England, pupils with lower levels of achievement report receiving more regular feedback from their science teachers than pupils with higher levels of achievement.
There is more frequent low-level disruption in science classrooms in England than in the average high-performing country. There is a particularly stark contrast between science classrooms in England and science classrooms in the high-performing East Asian nations in this respect.
Most pupils in England believe that the content of their school science lessons is helping to prepare them for the future; around three-quarter agree that it will help them to get a job and that it will improve their career prospects. More than a quarter of pupils (28 per cent) in England hope to be working in a science related career by age 30. This is above the average across industrialised countries (24 per cent) and the average across hih-performing countries (22 per cent).